“Mean” Joe Greene was a Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive lineman who certainly lived up to his menacing nickname.
Greene not only made life miserable for quarterbacks and offensive linemen, but he also once spat on Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus.
Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes formed the quartet known collectively as the “Steel Curtain” defense which helped the once-hapless Steelers establish a historic dynasty in the 1970s.
With Greene wreaking havoc on the defensive line, Chuck Noll’s Steelers won four Super Bowl titles that decade—a feat that would prove hard, if not impossible, to replicate.
As Greene’s iconic pro football career progressed, he earned international acclaim with his famous Hey Kid, Catch! Coca-Cola commercial.
Greene, one of the Steelers icons of the 1970s, entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1987.
This is “Mean” Joe Greene’s incredible football journey.
Charles Edward “Joe” Greene was born in Temple, TX on September 24, 1946.
In the fall of 2019, Greene told Meredith Moriak Wright of the University of North Texas’s official website that he got his nickname “Joe” when he was just a baby after an unnamed individual noticed the infant’s resemblance to heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.
According to Gary Pomerantz’s 2013 book, Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Steelers, Then and Now, Greene grew up without a father. His mother worked as a servant for white households.
In 2011, Greene told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website that his favorite teams as a child growing up in Texas were the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Dallas Cowboys.
One of Greene’s childhood sports idols was legendary Browns running back, Jim Brown. He also idolized heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Greene never would have thought he would become an elite NFL pass rusher one day.
Greene learned the value of hard work at an early age. He worked as a pecan and cotton picker when he reached middle school.
By the time Greene was in seventh grade, he worked in construction, per Pomerantz.
He recalled in his 2017 autobiography, “Mean” Joe Greene: Built by Football, he was a pudgy and slow-footed kid. By the time he reached seventh grade in 1959, he already weighed 150 pounds.
“On a scale of one to ten of being a good athlete,” Greene wrote. “I’d have to say I was a zero. I was terrible at every sport.”
Although Greene had a desire to play basketball, he balked once he realized how awful he played on the hard court. He also felt awkward wearing the skimpy shorts basketball players wore back in the day.
On the other hand, Greene was scared of playing baseball. Because he was afraid a fastball would hit him flush in the face, he sometimes ran to the dugout.
Joe Greene attended Dunbar High School in his hometown.
When Greene was a freshman, the school’s baseball coach assigned him to the bullpen.
Greene had a forgettable stint on the high school baseball diamond. He walked all of the batters he faced. It got so bad that his coach demoted him to batboy until the end of the season.
After Greene dropped out of the baseball program, he tried his luck with the football team. The head football coach wanted him to play fullback.
The coach called “26 Spinner” several times in Greene’s first game against the powerful all-black team from Austin Anderson.
That particular scheme called for the fullback to run in one direction while the quarterback ran the opposite way.
The two would then converge where they had initially positioned themselves at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback then handed Greene the football.
Unfortunately, Greene was not much of a runner. The defense stymied him and limited him to the backfield every time he received the handoff.
“Mean” Joe Greene was in attendance for the retirement of his Dunbar High School jersey last night in Temple, TX.
— DCTF College Football (@dctfCFB) October 2, 2021
Greene’s fiasco forced his coach to move him to guard and eventually defensive tackle.
He hardly resembled the Hall of Fame pass rusher he would become in the National Football League.
Greene forged a tight friendship with the middle linebacker. Despite Green’s best efforts, he could not contain the lead blocker.
Once the blocker slithered his way past Greene, he annihilated the middle linebacker, who wound up giving Greene a piece of his mind on the sideline.
Standing Up to a Bully
Things did not get any better for Joe Greene off the high school gridiron. In his 2017 book, he mentioned he had endured bullying from sixth grade until his sophomore year in high school.
Greene identified his biggest tormentor as a guy named Leonard “Speedy” Vance, who was several years his senior. Whenever the latter beat Greene in football, baseball, or basketball, he’d taunt him non-stop.
Greene’s most embarrassing moment occurred in eighth grade. Speedy flung a soaking wet wad of paper at him while he was flirting with some girls at the gym.
A humiliated Joe Greene did not even turn around. He knew all along it was Speedy who was the culprit. Greene simply walked out of the gym with his head bowed.
Greene mustered the courage to finally stand up to the bully when he was a sophomore.
One day, a group of Greene’s friends went to his house to pick him up so they could shoot some pool. Speedy tagged along and nonchalantly stole $5 Greene’s mother left for him on top of the television.
To Greene’s horror, he found out the money was gone the following morning. He knew Speedy was the perpetrator.
A seething Joe Greene went to Speedy’s house and asked him if he took his money. When Speedy confessed, Greene walloped him repeatedly until he fell to the ground.
Speedy never picked on Greene again. Whenever one of the latter’s friends rubbed him the wrong way, he fought back.
A Big Kid
Greene had grown to 6’1″ and 230 pounds by the time he entered his sophomore year of high school. He became a middle linebacker for the Dunbar Panthers in 1963.
Greene’s toughness off the field carried onto the gridiron. Officials threw him out of most of his games in his sophomore and junior seasons because of his on-field shenanigans.
In 1994, he admitted to Sports Illustrated that he sometimes ran over officials on purpose.
Greene admitted in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 1987 that his heart wasn’t into football when he was in high school.
Grand opening of Meridith- Dunbar was a huge success. Joe Greene found his senior picture! What a beautiful evening! pic.twitter.com/IBep5E6KAK
— Bobby Ott (@OttTempleISD) August 19, 2021
He gave credit to his high school football coaches, Coach Elliott and Coach Moore, for helping him persevere through the tough practices in the sweltering and oppressive Texas heat.
Although Greene did not know it at the time, those scrimmages on the high school football gridiron toughened him up and helped him become the man he is today.
Before Greene knew it, his confidence on the high school gridiron soared.
“I disregarded offensive linemen, blockers, anyone who got in my way,” Greene wrote in his 2017 autobiography. “That was my mindset. I had a singular, focused intensity every single play.”
Joe Greene was not a highly-touted prospect from the Lone Star State. He did not let that deter him. He wanted a college scholarship badly.
Greene thought he could punch his ticket to college by making a solid first impression on his recruiters.
He did that by working out feverishly at the gym for several months. Ironically, he admitted in his enshrinement speech he was not fond of hitting the gym.
Greene’s efforts paid off. He had a bigger and more muscular frame after a few months.
Impressing the College Scouts
Greene told Wright in 2019 the school (then known as North Texas State University) because he read a brochure saying Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Abner Haynes played for North Texas State in college.
One day, he visited the North Texas State campus. Before he met North Texas Mean Green head football coach Odus Mitchell, he went to the bathroom and did some pushups. Before long, Greene’s veins emerged from his muscular arms.
Greene flaunted his body to Mitchell and his staff as if he were a bodybuilder trying to impress the judges on stage.
Greene’s ploy worked. Mitchell gave him a football scholarship at North Texas State.
“Those coaches, their eyes just got so big,” Greene said in Pomerantz’s 2013 book. “They jumped out of their seats.”
Joe Greene eventually became an iconic defensive lineman during his four-year stint with Mitchell’s squad.
Greene’s historic No. 75 jersey traced its origins to his high school football days in the Lone Star State.
Greene wore that number because a player he idolized in high school wore it before he did, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Greene also decided to wear No. 75 in honor of Los Angeles Rams Hall of Fame defensive end, Deacon Jones, who began making waves in the NFL during Greene’s high school days in Texas.
College Days with the North Texas State Mean Green
Joe Greene attended North Texas State from 1965 to 1968. He suited up for North Texas State Mean Green head football coach Odus Mitchell.
Greene’s famous nickname, “Mean Joe Greene” originated during his college days. North Texas State’s team nickname soon became associated with one of the most famous pass rushers it has ever produced, per Pomerantz.
It was also at North Texas State where Greene met a freshman coed from Dallas, TX named Agnes Craft in his sophomore season in 1966.
They eventually got married one year later at Agnes’s sister’s house.
Baltimore Colts scout Chuck Noll sized up Noll at North Texas State for three years.
When Noll got a chance to talk to Greene during his senior year in 1968, he expressed his desire to play professional football.
“There was no doubt in my mind that this guy loved to play football and wanted to play very badly,” Noll said in Pomerantz’s 2013 book.
— Tomlin Reactions 🆃 (@TomlinReactions) August 28, 2018
That enthusiasm made an indelible impression on Noll, who eventually became Greene’s head coach with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers for his entire pro football career from 1969 to 1981.
Noll also considered Greene’s upbeat attitude his best asset. In fact, he brought it up when he presented Greene to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1987.
The Mean Green football team averaged six wins per season with Joe Greene on their roster from 1965 to 1968.
Greene eventually earned Consensus All-American honors following his senior season in 1968.
Chuck Noll already had his eye on Joe Greene during the latter’s days at North Texas.
Before long, the duo would help the Pittsburgh Steelers establish a dynasty and win four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Joe Greene the fourth overall selection of the 1969 NFL Draft.
Greene held out before he signed a five-year deal worth approximately $250,000, per Pomerantz.
According to Greene’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 1987, nobody was more accommodating than Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr.
The man known as “The Chief” gave Greene a cigar when he signed his Steelers contract at the Roosevelt Hotel in the summer of 1969.
Greene told the audience who witnessed his enshrinement in Canton, OH eighteen years later he still had that cigar.
Rooney’s son, Art II, who became the Steelers’ director of player personnel and principal owner in subsequent years, once quipped Joe Greene was “the most important guy we ever drafted.”
Given the Pittsburgh Steelers’ stellar track record in the 1970s, it is hard to argue with Rooney’s statement.
For his part, Greene thanked then-Steelers defensive line coach Dan Radakovich in his enshrinement speech for helping recruit fellow rookie and defensive end L.C. Greenwood in 1969.
Greene admitted he would not have earned a gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH had he not played beside Greenwood.
Greene’s 6’4″, 275-lb. frame complemented Greenwood’s quickness and speed at the line of scrimmage. The two would eventually receive valuable reinforcement on the defensive line as the years went by.
Standing Up for a Friend
Greene stood up for Greenwood, who became one of his closest friends, during their rookie year in 1969. Greene sprang to Greenwood’s defense against no less than legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 28, 2021
After Butkus wiped out Greenwood on a special teams play blocking for Gale Sayers, Butkus stood over Greenwood as if he’d knocked him out in a boxing match near the Steelers’ bench.
That was the wrong move.
Although Greene was just a rookie, he stood face-to-face with Butkus, a five-year veteran and perennial Pro Bowler.
Without warning, Greene spat on Butkus’s helmet. Surprisingly, Butkus did not retaliate. Instead, he just walked away, per Pomerantz.
“Mean” Joe Greene certainly lived up to his nickname. It was a good sign for the woebegone Steelers and their long-suffering fanbase.
Before “Mean” Joe Greene took the field for the Steelers, his pregame ritual involved dressing his left leg first, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Greene got off to a fast start in his pro football career. He racked up 9.5 sacks for the Steelers in 1969. Consequently, he won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
A Rough Start
Greene and the Steelers struggled mightily through a forgettable 1-13 win-loss season in 1969.
However, first-year Steelers head coach Chuck Noll thought that somehow brought out the best in “Mean” Joe Greene in subsequent years.
“He hadn’t experienced a 1-13 year, and we gave it to him that first year,” Noll said in 1987. “And I think that kind of brought out some of the good attitude that I was talking about—that desire to win even more strongly.”
Pittsburgh was one of the NFL’s cellar dwellers in the first three years of the Chuck Noll era from 1969 to 1971.
The Steelers averaged just four wins per year during those three seasons. They had not made the postseason since the 1947 NFL campaign.
The Steel Curtain
It was a 24-year drought that saw seven head coaches—John Michelosen, Joe Bach, Walt Kiesling, Buddy Parker, Mike Nixon, Bill Austin, and Noll—try to lead Pittsburgh to the postseason, to no avail.
That would all change when Pittsburgh’s vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense came to life in the early 1970s.
When defensive linemen Dwight White and Ernie Holmes joined forces with Greene and Greenwood, the Steelers’ fortunes changed overnight.
It wasn’t just the defensive line, though. The Steelers were loaded on both sides of the ball. They had quarterback Terry Bradshaw, wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
Happy Birthday to the man, the myth, the Legend, Mean Joe Greene!
Joe Greene turns 75 today.
Without Joe Greene there would be no Steelers Dynasty. pic.twitter.com/tk1GteUgtT
— STEELCITYNATION (@SCityNATION412) September 24, 2021
In one fell swoop, Pittsburgh became the most dominant NFL team of the 1970s.
The Steelers averaged eleven wins per season from 1972 to 1979. They won seven division titles and won four Super Bowl titles during that memorable time in franchise history.
Greene’s star rose during the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. He earned 10 Pro Bowl selections, five First-Team All-Pro, and three Second-Team All-Pro selections from 1972 to 1979.
Greene also won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1972 and 1974.
He had a combined 20.0 sacks in those two seasons as the Steelers began lording it over the opposition in the 1970s.
Greene had a career-high 11.0 sacks in the 1972 NFL campaign. He had the game of his life against the Houston Oilers that year.
Greene sacked Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini five times in injury-riddled Pittsburgh’s 9-3 victory on December 10, 1972.
Road to the Super Bowl
“Mean” Joe Greene revolutionized his legendary pass-blocking skills in the 1974 NFL season.
He began lining up at a steep angle between the center and the guard. That strategy interfered with the offensive line’s blocking assignments.
Consequently, Greene had easier access to the quarterback and running backs.
Greene put this strategy to good use in Super Bowl IX against the Minnesota Vikings on January 12, 1975.
He recorded an interception and fumble recovery in the Vikings’ red zone to secure Pittsburgh’s 16-6 victory and its first Vince Lombardi trophy in franchise history.
Greene was also an ironman during his heyday in the National Football League. He played in 91 consecutive games from 1969 to 1975.
By the time “Mean” Joe Greene hung up his cleats following the 1981 NFL season, he had suited up in 181 of a possible 190 games in Steelers Black and Gold.
He finished his iconic pro football career with 77.5 sacks and 16 fumble recoveries.
One of the Best Coca-Cola Ads Ever
Greene’s famous Hey Kid, Catch! Coca-Cola commercial aired during the 1979 NFL season. It also aired during Super Bowl XIV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.
Coca-Cola asked McCann Erickson’s Penny Hawkey and Roger Mosconi to formulate a concept for a football commercial
Although the concept of a young boy talking to a pro football player seemed feasible, Hawkey and Mosconi had to figure out who the ideal gridiron warrior would be.
They considered Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Lynn Swann, and Terry Bradshaw. When somebody mentioned the name “Mean Joe Greene” to Hawkey, she knew she’d found the perfect candidate—a football player with a menacing aura.
“I said, ‘Mean Joe Greene?’ Is there actually someone named ‘Mean Joe Greene?’,” Hawkey told Yahoo! Sports’s Jeff Eisenberg in the summer of 2019. “A big, menacing guy with that nickname was exactly what we wanted.”
Greene did the commercial with nine-year-old Tommy Okon like a natural. The advertisement garnered international acclaim and has stood the test of time.
Greene told People‘s Tierney McAfee in January 2017 that he’d had to drink eighteen bottles of Coca-Cola before the final take.
“I didn’t know any better,” Greene said. “I chugged the doggone thing over and over and over.”
Greene and Okon eventually reunited in 2016, almost four decades after they filmed the commercial in 1979.
Other Notes About Greene
Greene appeared in several movies during his 13-year NFL career, including The Black Six, All the Marbles, and Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story.
Greene considered the New York Giants’ Yankee Stadium his favorite NFL stadium aside from the Steelers’ Three Rivers Stadium. In 2011, he told ProFootballHOF.com that Yankee Stadium’s nostalgia set it apart from other NFL venues.
Greene singled out the Miami Dolphins’ Larry Little and the Cleveland Browns’ Gene Hickerson the best offensive linemen he faced in the National Football League.
On the other hand, Greene considered the Houston Oilers’ Earl Campbell and the Buffalo Bills’ O.J. Simpson the best running backs he played against during his 13-year NFL career.
In 2011, “Mean” Joe Greene told ProFootballHOF.com that his greatest achievement off the gridiron was being a successful husband, father, and grandfather.
“Mean” Joe Greene and his first wife, Agnes, have two sons, Charles Major and Edward Delon, and a daughter, Joquel. They have seven grandchildren.
Both of Greene’s sons earned bachelor’s degrees from his alma mater, the University of North Texas.
The school named Joe Greene to its board of regents in 1981—his final season in the National Football League. University of North Texas’s residence hall is named “Joe Greene Hall” in his honor.
Hall of Fame
“Mean” Joe Greene became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1987. Chuck Noll, his head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was his presenter.
Twenty-four years later, Greene told ProFootballHOF.com that he found out about his induction in a phone call while he was sitting in his office. His entire family and several friends were present when he received the call.
Part of Greene’s enshrinement speech reads:
“The guys that have preceded me have done really well… I am a fan at heart, and these people I admire because they stood the test of time. When it got tough, they showed up to play. They made the contest worth watching because they rose to a new height. I am glad I am here because this is the big event.”
Greene embarked on a 17-year coaching career in the National Football League from 1987 to 2003.
He served as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach from 1987 to 1991. He then served the Miami Dolphins in that same capacity from 1991 to 1995.
Greene was one of the Arizona Cardinals’ assistant coaches from 1996 to 2003.
Greene told the University of North Texas’s official website that presenting Steelers chairman Dan Rooney to the Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2000 was one of his fondest memories.
The Pittsburgh Steelers retired Greene’s No. 75 jersey in the fall of 2014.
“Who would’ve thought this in 1969?” Greene told ProFootballHOF.com. “It’s beyond my imagination to see this and to be a part of. It’s so very, very special.”
“Mean” Joe Greene is also a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor, the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Greene told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website that his favorite hobby is taking photographs. He also likes reading the Holy Bible.
He listens to various genres of music. However, his favorite is rhythm and blues.
Greene’s favorite movie of all time is The Magnificent Seven. His favorite food is his mom’s fried chicken and banana pudding.
Sadly, Greene’s first wife, Agnes, passed away due to breast cancer in 2015. They were married for more than 47 years.
Greene launched the Agnes Lucille Craft Greene Memorial Scholarship in her honor three years later.
The Temple Independent School District retired Greene’s No. 75 jersey in the fall of 2021.
Joe Greene currently resides in Flower Mound, TX with his second wife, Charlotte.